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US sanctions El Salvador officials accused of negotiating with gangs

<i>Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images/FILE</i><br/>The US Treasury Department report accuses El Salvador officials of organizing covert meetings with incarcerated gang members.
AFP via Getty Images
Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images/FILE
The US Treasury Department report accuses El Salvador officials of organizing covert meetings with incarcerated gang members.

By Merlin Delcid and Sheena McKenzie, CNN

The US on Wednesday imposed sanctions on two El Salvador government officials accused of negotiating with notorious local gangs in an attempt to seal a secret “truce” and shore up political support.

According to a statement by the US Treasury Department, the officials — Osiris Luna, chief of the Salvadoran Penal System and vice minister of justice and public security, and Carlos Marroquin, chairman of the social fabric reconstruction unit — organized covert meetings with senior incarcerated members of the gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18. The Salvadoran criminal gang MS-13 has been described by the US government as a “transnational threat.”

Over the course of negotiations, gang leaders agreed to provide political support to the ruling Nuevas Ideas party in upcoming elections, the US statement alleges. It points out that Nuevas Ideas won a two-thirds super majority in 2021’s legislative elections.

The statement also accuses Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s administration in 2020 of providing financial incentives to MS-13 and Barrio 18 to “ensure that incidents of gang violence and the number of confirmed homicides remained low” and of offering mobile phones and prostitutes to incarcerated gang leaders.

Bukele on Wednesday vigorously denied his administration was negotiating with gangs. He wrote on Twitter that allegations of the government supplying cell phones, prostitutes and money to gangs were an “obvious lie.”

According to the US, Luna also participated in a private corruption scheme. When the pandemic hit El Salvador, Luna and his mother, Alma Meza, headed a strategy to steal and re-sell staple goods that were intended for the government’s Covid-19 relief fund, the US statement alleges.

Instead, “these items were transferred to private companies and then resold on the private market or back to the government,” the US report said, adding that mother Meza “acted as negotiator in some of these transactions.”

Marroquin, Luna and his mother Meza have not commented on the accusations, and there is no criminal charge against them.

CNN has reached out to all three for comment, but had not received a response at time of publishing.

As part of the sanctions, the US Treasury Department will block all properties and interests of the officials and of Alma Meza in the US.

After an investigation by online newspaper El Faro in 2020 also suggested that Bukele’s government had a pact with the MS-13 gang to reduce the number of murders in exchange for benefits, the president also criticized that investigation, saying on Twitter that gang members were not given privileges.

CNN has not been able to independently verify the information in the US Treasury Department report.

On Thursday, the Treasury also added to its sanctions list another high-ranking Salvadoran official — Martha Carolina Recinos de Bernal, chief of cabinet to President Nayib Bukele — accusing her of overseeing “a multiple ministry, multi-million dollar corruption scheme involving suspicious pandemic-related purchases.”

The office of the presidency did not respond to CNN’s request for comment in regard to Recinos de Bernal, either. But Bukele himself tweeted on Thursday that “these daily accusations seem absurd.”

“It is clear that the United States Government does not accept collaboration, friendship or alliance. It is absolute submission, or nothing,” Bukele wrote.

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